The in-store kiosk rises from its ashes

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I like to take a broad view of search, one that unchains the industry from the "customer + desktop + keyword = search" formula. After all, we are constantly in search mode, even when we have already found ourselves at a shopping destination. Perhaps this is why in-store kiosks have risen from their ashes to re-populate retail stores such as Barnes & Noble and the local grocery store chain. One might say that such kiosks are the ultimate in vertical search. The customer has already made one brand decision (the store) and now needs help finding exactly what he is looking for. Organic kale? On special, and here's a recipe. Medieval women's studies? Second floor, to the right.

If you are thinking that topic is sounding more like 1997 than 2007, you're not alone. My research found headlines from the past still dominate the first page of Google results. One such example from CNet, "Virgin to sell Rio handhelds in stores" reminded me why most early kiosks failed; they offered radical purchasing alternatives to customers who were already in-store. External events, such as the rapid increase in Internet access, the quantity of content available online and improved search engines also rendered many in-store efforts obsolete in a relatively short period of time.

So it was a pleasure to see that my recent kiosk sightings finally solved the most obvious in-store customer problem of all: determining if the product is in stock, and if so, where to find it. While we once deferred to employees for such questions, the rise of the Internet has provided customers with an increase in information and control. The truth is that we all want the same level of information access that the bookstore employees do, and so the in-store kiosk becomes an extension of the inventory application, albeit with a snazzier interface.

Of course, some stores have realized that information is a double-edged sword. In the case of electronics retailer Best Buy, in-store kiosks have been criticized for not posting the price available to Internet shoppers, which is sometimes lower than in-store prices. As a result, the firm will now post disclaimers to alert customers to this fact.

Despite advances in the thinking around how technology can aid an in-store experience, such an event suggests that lack of foresight will again turn this Phoenix into a pile of ashes. The budgeting decision that resulted in today's in-store kiosks probably occurred at least a year, if not two or three ago. At that time, mobile devices were on the rise, but few were used for anything other than making a phone call. Had the decision makers predicted developments in mobile applications as well as changes in consumers' mobile behavior, perhaps the solution would have taken the broadest of all search views: to provide customers with the information they seek, anytime, anywhere through a mobile device.

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